If you missed part one our adventures in Costa Rica, click here.
My first day volunteering for a sea turtle conservation group in Costa Rica easily ranks as the most enjoyable day of volunteer work I’ve ever experienced. I’d make up for it the following afternoon, but I wasn’t thinking about manual labor on that morning. And I can guarantee you Nora and Rita weren’t either.
We were riding in a skiff across the calm waters of the Gulfo Dulce. The gulf is sandwiched between the Osa Peninsula and mainland Costa Rica. Besides a marine biologist, a research assistant, and four other volunteers, the boat was loaded with scientific equipment, such as scales, rulers, cameras, nets, log books, latex gloves, syringes, and disinfectant.
I inhaled the smell of salt water and felt the sunshine soaking into my skin, but they were the only two familiar sensations. Everything else was foreign. Mangroves and banana trees, tall and bare except for their umbrella-like tops, slid past each side of us. Somewhere in that lush jungle, monkeys, wild cats, and sloths were hanging out. And somewhere in the clear waters, dolphins, whales, sharks, and sea turtles were swimming. National Geographic called the Osa Peninsula one of the most biologically intense places on the earth. And we were right in the thick of it.
We were working for the Osa In-Water project, helping them on a “water day.” A water day meant spending six hours in the gulf trying to catch sea turtles. If we caught one, we would tag them. If they were already tagged, we’d collect tissue samples and biometric measurements so the biologists could study things like population structures, general health, and habitat changes. Once we collected all the necessary information, we’d release the turtles back into the ocean. The project is particularly interested in two endangered species, the green and hawksbill.
Nora, Rita, and I had learned about water day the night before when we arrived at Playa Blanca, 220 miles south of San Jose, Costa Rica. Playa Blanca isn’t a town. It’s a village, which we realized as soon as we turned down the one dirt road that runs through it. It’s a place so small nobody has an address, and there is no such thing as a postal worker. Instead, people give directions through landmarks. And public buses transport letters or packages to the only store in the village. The same man who ran the store was also the skiff’s captain.
After twenty minutes, the boat stopped next to a remote beach nestled inside a cove. The biology team laid out a net that was a couple thousand feet across. Nora, Rita, and I carried equipment to the beach. One hour passed, then another, and we still didn’t catch a turtle. We ate our packed lunches, which mainly consisted of rice and beans. That was our third meal in Playa Blanca, and it was the third time we’d had rice and beans. Each time our hostess had added a new twist, last night she mixed in peppers, eggs for breakfast, and now fruit.
The in-water project provides food and housing for a small fee. As soon as we had opened our cabin door, I realized people don’t volunteer for a sea turtle conservation group because of the accommodations. Our room’s whole décor gave off a jail-like vibe. It had concrete floors, cinderblock walls, a tin roof, bunk beds, no windows, and no air conditioning. A single bulb hung from the ceiling and emitted a feeble glow. Every bed had a pillow, a fitted, and flat sheet. We never had hot water, not even lukewarm, but we did have a cockroach or two that scattered whenever we turned on the bathroom light.
Three hours into water day and still no turtles, so Nora, Rita, and I wandered off to explore the mangroves. Mangrove trees only live in warm climates, and they are key to the coastline’s health. They are easy to recognize because of their exposed and tangled root systems, as though they are standing on mangled stilts. This tangled abundance stabilizes coastlines, but it also provides safe nesting grounds for hundreds of species, including sea turtles.
We were examining different kinds of hermit shells when I first noticed the tiny red dots around Rita’s ankles. Once I saw a few, more and more appeared, until it looked like she had suddenly broken out in a severe case of measles. Starting at her toes and running up her thighs, she had at least fifty sand flea bites on each leg.
The research assistant had told us to bring plenty of sunscreen and water, and not to wear any bug spray because it was bad for the turtles. Looking at Rita, I had no doubt she complied. Nora and I didn’t wear any either, and we had a few bites but nothing compared to Rita. I don’t know what sweetness she had in her blood, but the sand fleas loved it. And they ate her alive.
The biologist, a French woman in her mid-thirties, advised us to sit in the water because it was the only place to escape them. So, for the last three hours we spent on that remote beach, we soaked up to our chests in the Gulfo Dulce’s warm waters. The water must have been 80 degrees, like bathwater. The jungle surrounded us in all its exotic green glory. Sometimes, red macaws, traveling in pairs and trailing their long tail feathers, flew above us. Occasionally, we heard a toucan’s frog-like croak.
We never caught a sea turtle, but a few times one would peek its head above water. Somehow the biologist knew from one glimpse whether it was a green or hawksbill. Besides our group, we didn’t see any people. We saw another small skiff, but it was as far away as the horizon. At some point, I said, “This is got to be the best day of volunteering. Like ever.” Even Rita agreed.
We’d pay for every bit of ease the next day, on mangrove day. But, we didn’t know that then, so we soaked until we pruned, until schools of tiny darting fish started nibbling on our toes.